News From Fiber Connect

The Fiber Broadband Association’s annual conference, held in Nashville in June, offered many fiber community success stories.

  • Community Broadband
  • Law and Policy
  • Rural Broadband
  • Technology

Along with technology news highlighting increased bandwidth and service flexibility, this year’s annual meeting of the Fiber Broadband Association highlighted the successes of communities that found ways to build fiber networks with little or no federal aid.

Attendees described FCC policies with mixed feelings, even though the industry is enjoying record fiber deployment growth, with five straight years of annual increases in homes gaining access to fiber. With a quarter of all rural children growing up in poverty, prospective and existing rural operators worried about how the policy pieces would fall into place. More than a year into the Trump Administration, they still judge federal regulatory and funding frameworks as a work in progress:

  • Non-telco broadband providers expressed happiness about being freed from state-level Title II regulation thanks to the repeal of net neutrality rules that had to be issued under Title II.
  • Many operators complained about price gouging by national carriers for interconnects and about pole attachment rules that were partially rectified under Title II and are now being rewritten by the FCC.
  • There was annoyance about long delays – often years – for federal officials to review seemingly benign fiber deployments along federal highway rights-of-way. The promised easing of federal regulations governing these deployments – a process started by the Obama administration – is finally occurring, but the reviewing agencies have suffered major personnel losses. Ben Moncrief of C Spire said he had trouble laying fiber along a highway that ran through a national forest: “It took 27 months to dig a hole in an 8-mile right-of-way that had been there 80 years. The biologist luckily did not find gopher tortoises. It was the last step in a 200-mile total build. We want the OK to be automatic within 50 feet of an existing highway right-of-way.”
  • Attendees were happy about new funding for rural broadband through the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) and about the general performance at RUS’s parent agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, they were annoyed that the new funds won’t flow until 2019; regulations must still be written for the new rural broadband programs Congress created and funded.
  • Several expressed annoyance that the FCC seems more concerned about avoiding any possible trouble for major carriers rather than about actively promoting good broadband in unserved and severely underserved areas.
  • Many were hopeful that fiber-fed 5G wireless would prove to be a game changer and enable more business cases for building networks.
  • Others expressed hope that the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF II) auction for prospective service providers in high-cost areas would help address the digital divide, but they worried that barely adequate satellite service would substitute for terrestrial broadband in many areas – as has already occurred in New York state, where CAF II money was combined with a state bond issue for hard-to-serve districts.

John Windhausen of the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition has been a strong advocate for the use of FCC Universal Service Fund revenue to fund network deployments for anchor institutions. When it comes to networks for health care, he said, “Many are denied or held up. [The FCC] is using the CAF cost model for E-Rate and denies applications without allowing revision. Rural health care does not have enough money. The $400 million [annual] cap has caused retroactive rate increases in rural telehealth programs. We do see some positive signs out of the FCC from Pai. Wheeler did not act on them.”

Government investment in broadband produces greater economic benefit than investment in other local assets, such as stadiums, but is more controversial.

Windhausen persuaded 31 senators to ask for more funding for the program, noting, “We want $800 million, and it would still be the smallest piece of the $8–9 billion in CAF money available” each year. A few weeks after the Fiber Connect conference, the FCC increased the annual cap on program spending by nearly 43 percent, to $571 million. 

MEASURING ROI ON PUBLIC INVESTMENT

Minnesota rural broadband advocates Ann Treacy (a consultant and chief writer at the Blandin on Broadband blog) and Bill Coleman (president, Community Technology Advisors) noted that governments, especially at the state level, are often more willing to fund money-losing tangible investments – things the public can see – with their limited funds than they are to fund long-term moneymakers such as fiber broadband.

Minnesota lost money on its Super Bowl investment. The Super Bowl committee spent $60 million in public funds. The new Super Bowl-worthy stadium cost $500 million. Rockport Analytics estimated the long-term return at $336 million. Sports economist Victor Matheson estimated the return at $30 to $130 million.

In contrast, broadband investment in the state’s smaller communities paid off in new business, population growth and increased property values. The five communities Treacy and Coleman detailed had different returns, but all were in the black. The average annual economic benefit has been $1,850. Average property value increase is about 3 percent.

Building their own networks is not the only strategy for communities to benefit from improved broadband. For instance, two exurban counties in Minnesota taxed themselves to subsidize service improvements by CenturyLink.

Coleman decried the FCC’s vision of satellite service for rural customers: “There are no happy satellite customers,” he said.

Panel on pathways for broadband by electric coops
Panel on pathways for broadband by electric coops. Left to right: Ron Holcomb, CEO, Tipmont REMC; Dan Rodamaker, Gibson EMC and Gibson Connect LLC; David Callis, Executive VP and general manager, Tennessee Electric Coop Association
 
 

Even when a community looks at first glance like a good bet for broadband, the numbers don’t always work for private providers. Ernie Staten, director of public service for Fairlawn, Ohio, highlighted several issues. Fairlawn is right at the edge of two providers’ service districts. When town officials went to Europe on a trade mission, they were told the town was great but had no broadband. A hospital that wanted to build a facility there found that fiber would require $100,000 up front plus $5,000 a month.

“Fairlawn was going to try to maintain itself on service fees,” said Staten. “We looked at it as a utility, and ROI is tough for that. We put out an RFP and made a mistake in that we did not have a design study on how to build it. That woke us up to realize it was not possible. We chose Fujitsu as the best respondent, and they figured out how to do it.”

Small municipal governments tend to be fiscally conservative even when they spend money carefully, said Ben Ramirez, business development leader at the Foresite Group. “So we get a lot of feasibility studies. My company does WAN design for large carriers, and even there, there is often a lack of understanding.” 

5G DEPLOYMENTS

Ben Moncrief of C Spire noted that the Mississippi-based company is now the nation’s fifth-largest wireless carrier. “About 12 years ago, we got tired of paying AT&T for backhaul, so we built our own. Then we decided to use the fiber to serve wireline,” he said. C Spire won the Mississippi state contract for voice and data services and is bringing fiber within 1,000 feet of half the state residents.

Kurt Simmons, vice president for communications at Cyient, described the symbiotic relationship of deep fiber – fiber brought close to end users – and the accelerating pace of new technology and standards-setting in the 5G process. The biggest eye-opener was his well-informed expectation of very low (1 to 10 ms) latency in just a few years. Today, connecting to a 4G cell site takes around 20 ms at best. That’s too slow for driverless vehicles to communicate with one another through a cellular network.

ELECTRIC CO-OPS START TO MOVE

In the United States, 834 distribution electric cooperatives provide electricity to 19 million homes and businesses in 47 states. Their service territories cover 56 percent of the nation’s land area outside Alaska. They own and maintain 2.6 million miles (42 percent) of the nation’s electric distribution lines. (By comparison, the nation’s network of paved roads covers 2.7 million miles.) They employ 72,000 people.

David Callis, executive vice president and general manager of the Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association (TECA) noted that co-ops have particular heft in Tennessee as so many were formed to distribute power from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s dams and power plants. TECA members provide services to 22 electric cooperatives and one municipal association in Tennessee and Kentucky and to one co-op in Georgia. TECA members serve 2.5 million Tennesseans and one in three homes and have facilities in 84 of the state’s 95 counties.

ELECTRIC CO-OPS AND BROADBAND IN TENNESSEE

The Tennessee state law enacted on April 2, 2017 provides that

  • A cooperative providing any of the authorized broadband services cannot provide subsidies for such services and shall administer, operate, and maintain the electric system separately in all respects, including establishing and maintaining a separate fund for the revenues from electric operations, and shall not directly or indirectly mingle electric system funds or accounts, or otherwise consolidate or combine the financing of the electric system, with those of any other of its operations.
  • A cooperative providing any broadband services shall administer and operate such services as a separate subsidiary.
  • Every cooperative has the power and is authorized, acting through its board of directors, to acquire, construct, own, improve, operate, lease, maintain, sell, mortgage, pledge, or otherwise dispose of any system for the provision of broadband internet access, internet protocolbased video, video-based video, video programming, or related similar services, within the service area.
  • ln the event that a cooperative acquires, merges with, or consolidates with another entity that provides any one of the services authorized by this law, in a geographic location concurrent with or adjacent to the electric subdivision, nothing in this section prohibits provision of the broadband services in the new area.
  • A cooperative that elects to provide broadband services must provide other providers of such services nondiscriminatory access to their equipment for the provision of such services on infrastructure or poles owned or controlled by the cooperative.
  • To the extent that any cooperative provides services authorized by this subdivision, the cooperative shall furnish services on an area coverage basis.

Currently, six of the 22 Tennessee co-ops are actively building broadband networks. Only a few (whose territories are either very remote or well served by local incumbent telcos) aren’t considering broadband.

No distributor of TVA power can cross-subsidize broadband, however. A new law (see box) allows a co-op to serve an area outside its footprint if it buys or merges with a telco or another broadband carrier outside its service area. In 2016, legislative and administration efforts led to changes.

  • All major stakeholders provided feedback: telecommunications companies, telephone cooperatives, cable companies, electric cooperatives and municipal electric systems.
  • TECA polled its member co-ops to gauge interest in providing broadband in their service areas. It also held discussions with other stakeholders and arrived at a consensus framework for legislation, then actively lobbied for it.

The new law appropriated a small amount of grant money, but its big benefit was the clarification and expansion of co-ops’ rights to build broadband networks.

The first round of broadband grants from the Department of Economic and Community Development under the 2017 law was awarded on January 26, 2018. Two electric co-ops received grants: Gibson EMC received $1.35 million to serve parts of Lake and Obion counties, and Tri-County Electric received $1.35 million to serve parts of Sumner and Trousdale Counties. 

New at Fiber Connect: Cheaper, Faster Deployments and Repairs

The expo floor at Fiber Connect displayed many innovations that could help make the business case for new and expanded fiber deployments.

New generations of network electronics get most of the headlines in the technical press, but less glamorous innovations often improve speed to cash flow breakeven and reduce costs enough to make builds possible. Examples include rugged FastPatch foam sealants for use in microtrenches and elsewhere from the Performance Products division of Willamette Valley Company (www. FastPatchSystems.com) and mapping software for planning and asset tracking from 3-GIS (www.3-gis.com), FiberPlanIT (www.fiberplanit.com), Ubisense (www.ubisense.net) and others.

Tulsa-based broadband distributor Budco (www.BudcoCable.com) revived a great product, the No Lash Line System, which allows operators to easily deploy aerial fiber without traditional lashing. New pricing is the key. I first saw this product almost a decade ago, when it was demonstrated by its Japanese inventor, who had developed it for Hokkaido’s hideous winter weather. An installer essentially uses a heavy-duty drill to deploy the loose spiral “lashing,” then slides the fiber cable through. A one- or two-person crew can hang long spans from a single bucket. However, the product’s high cost ate most of the labor and time savings.

Budco, the exclusive licensee in North America, has changed that equation with its inexpensive starter kit. A mere $636 buys enough spiral sections and couplers to deploy 500 feet of fiber cable – not much more than $1 a foot. It’s a game changer, especially for long rural deployments along narrow, curving roads.

Budco’s Slinky-like spiral system
Budco’s Slinky-like spiral system for easy – and now cheaper – deployment of aerial fiber.
 
 

It seems counterintuitive that fiber counts continue to climb in cables for ducts and aerial deployments, as the latest electronics can easily push 80 Gbps down a single fiber strand. But AFL, Corning, OFS and Sumitomo Electric Lightwave all offer 3,456-strand cables. Driving this trend are such high-density applications as sports stadiums (which can have as many as 10,000 cellular access points), 5G backhaul, and software-defined access (which allows operators to reconfigure networks on the fly).

Flat-ribbon cables generally max out at 1,728 strands, with an overall cable diameter of roughly an inch, and rollable ribbon (the individual 250-µm fiber strands in each ribbon are intermittently bonded to one another so they stretch out and pull apart in a weblike pattern) at 3,456, with an overall diameter of around 1.4 inches. Either one will slide easily into 2-inch ducts. Many 1,728-strand rollable ribbon cables in this class are suitable for common 1.25-inch pathways. All allow automated fusion splicing with splicers that keep track of the industry-standard color coding and location markers. Different styles and outer jackets are suitable to a wide range of installations.

High-count fiber
High-count fiber: OFS fits up to 3,456 strands into a 1.4-inch cable.
 
 

The image, taken on the show floor, is in the OFS AccuTube rollable ribbon line of loose-tube cables.

Where might you terminate these expensive monster cables? In remarkably small enclosures and cabinets. The smallest we saw for 3,456-strand cable was the Coyote HD dome enclosure from Preformed Line Products (www.preformed.com). It’s only 28 inches high and 9.5 inches thick, and it takes cables up to 1.38 inches in diameter (enough for 3,456 strands in a dielectric outer tube). Clearfield and companies such as Hubbell that specialize in underground enclosures are also developing enclosure models to handle the new fiber counts.

Coyote HD dome enclosure from Preformed Line Products
Coyote HD dome enclosure from Preformed Line Products terminates 3,456 strands in a space just 28 inches high and 9.5 inches thick.
 
 

Need to fix a hardened connector in the field? It won’t happen often, but Corning introduced a new kit to do just that. The composite image shows the jig and repair kit Corning has just started to sell.

After an operator deploys optics in the field, it has to maintain them. As the industry matures, there are more and more tricks to make that easier.

Even hardened connectors are coming in bigger and bigger herds
Even hardened connectors are coming in bigger and bigger herds, as the cap from Multilink makes clear.
 
 

The ProTune appliance and its software interface from ProLabs (www.prolabs.com) allow operators to quickly fix network outages, reconfigure networks and bring new customers online. It reprograms fiber optics, including units with tunable lasers (SFP/SFP+, XFP/QSFP+, and QSFP28 transceiver form factors and even DWDM SFP+s and XFPs) for any platform and channel. The key for smaller network operators is that it reduces the inventory of spares needed and typically cuts truck rolls from several to one.

Corning kit
Corning kit for repairing hardened connectors in the field
 
 
ProLabs appliance
ProLabs appliance for reprogramming optical transceivers in the field – even the latest tunable lasers
 
 

As you might expect, the little box gets its power from a USB port and its smarts from the cloud, insuring that all data are current. The software also manages access IDs across the organization.

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2019 Agenda at a Glance
Featured Speakers – Summit 2019
2019 Exhibitor List
2019 Summit Floor Plan
Multifamily Educational Series
The Leading Broadband Event
2019 Travel & Hotel Information
2018 Fiber-To-The-Home Top 100
Rural Broadband Track
General Sessions

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